Memorial Day Weekend Photo Essay

This time of year birders flock to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and various other desert oases throughout the West in hopes of finding rare strays ("vagrants") from the east and south. I spent Memorial Day Weekend in Harney County, Oregon. While my efforts at Malheur headquarters, Fields, and other isolated stands of trees produced no unusual birds, others managed to find a few surprises. Despite this "O-fer" on rarities, it was a particularly memorable trip on the human front. As stated in my earlier Memorial Day piece, this pilgrimage is about seeing old friends, absorbing the landscape, and enjoying the incredible wealth of common birdlife that breeds in the Harney Basin. In that regard, this trip was exceptional.


This image, taken looking east from the Pete French Round Barn, offers an example of the wide-open space and "big sky" one sees in the high desert country of southeastern Oregon.

Photo taken by Dave Irons.

My travel mates were my two teenage daughters and one of their friends who had never visited this corner of Oregon. While all three of them were interested in looking at "cool" birds, they had no interest in helping dad pick out the female Tennessee Warbler from all the Warbling Vireos that were about. Close-up views of male Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Black-necked Stilts, and Great Horned Owls were, to them, much more entertaining. They also wanted to visit the Pete French Round Barn, Diamond Craters, and of course slurp down milkshakes at the Fields Cafe. Strangely, I found myself with a bit less enthusiasm than I normally have for pounding the woodlots for vagrants. Instead I was embracing the idea of just touring around. Thus, I ended up spending most of my time taking pictures of common birds, herps, mammals, landscapes, and the girls. So I thought I would share the results of these efforts.


The girls in front of the Pete French Round Barn 24 May 2009. A rather noisy family of Common Ravens was nesting inside the barn. Photo taken by Dave Irons.


This female Yellow Warbler definitely had some exhibitionist tendencies. Her nest was in plain view in a small tree in the middle of the lawn at Malheur NWR headquarters. The birding paparazzi captured many images as she worked on her nest throughout the weekend. By Monday morning, it was nearly twice this tall. Photo taken by Dave Irons.


Following my own advice, I made a point of tracking down Steve Herman (left) and Harry Nehls (center). Diane Pettey took this picture of the three of us on the deck at Malheur NWR headquarters on 24 May 2009.

One of the birding highlights of the trip occurred Sunday morning. Leaving the teenagers back at the motel to get some well-earned rest (we left Eugene at 2AM on Saturday), I met up with Diane Pettey at 6AM and we headed off for a couple hours at headquarters before returning to Burns to pick up the girls around 10AM. A variety of detours, photo ops, and just not being in a hurry resulted in a 30-minute drive taking more than two hours. As we crossed the crest of Wrights Point (12 miles south of Burns) around 8AM we were talking about Harry Nehls in some context. About this time I spotted a birder stopped along the road about 300 yards ahead of us. Within a second or two we realized that it was Harry.

We pulled over and found out that he had been watching a couple Black-throated Sparrows, always a fun bird to see. These particular birds were near the northern extent of their regular range. We watched and photographed the pair for several minutes, during which time Harry happened to mention that, although he had found many nests of other desert sparrows, he had never found a Black-throated Sparrow nest. A few moments later he left Diane and me and headed off to headquarters. As we endeavored to get good pictures of the male, which occasionally teed up and sang, we realized that the two birds seemed to be returning to the same bush again and again. From the road we could discern the outline of what appeared to be a nest in a three-foot tall Big Sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) about a dozen yards upslope. I scrambled up the cutbank, slithered under a fence, snapped a couple quick shots of the nest (which was empty) and then we left so that these birds could resume their activities peacefully. When we rejoined Harry (in the photo above), I showed him the images of the nest. 


This Black-throated Sparrow nest was found on Wrights Point, where this species has nested somewhat regularly for at least the past four decades. Photo taken by Dave Irons.            


Perhaps no other bird is more closely associated with Malheur NWR than the male Yellow-headed Blackbird. In May it often seems as though every fencepost and cattail on the refuge is adorned with one of these striking birds. This individual was along Hwy 205 south of Burns on 23 May 2009. Photo taken by Dave Irons


Despite being a common sight in almost any stand of deciduous trees in the Great Basin, the unmistakable blaze of orange provided by a male Bullock's Oriole always warrants a second look. This bird was at Fields, Oregon 23 May 2009. Photo taken by Dave Irons.


Great Horned Owls are among the most popular subjects for photographers visiting Malheur and the surrounding area. Given the scarcity of trees, they are easily located even during daylight hours. This bird was sitting on the ground in the woodlot at Fields, Oregon on 23 May 2009. One can only wonder how many miles of 35mm film and gigabytes of hard drive space have been devoted to images of this species that have been taken in Harney County.


In recent decades the population of White-faced Ibis on and around Malheur NWR has exploded. When I first visited the Harney Basin in 1977 there were only about 200 breeding pairs on the refuge. By 1998, more than 10,000 pairs of ibis were observed there and this population seems to keep growing. Photo taken by Dave Irons.

We live in an age where there is an increasing disconnect between humans and the land that sustains us. The high desert country of southeastern Oregon offers a stark contrast to the panopticon of dense population centers, where every viewscape is dominated by the fingerprint of man and everyday life is increasingly a spectator sport. This desert landscape offers an alternative reality where there is time to think and more importantly ponder those questions that don't occur to us in a sub-division. The fact that my children have come to know and appreciate this region and want to share its wonders with their friends and their dad gives me hope. On our last night in what I've affectionately come to know as "The Big Country," my daughter Lilly, Diane Pettey, and I walked up South Coyote Butte at the Malheur Field Station to watch the sunset. Ultimately, my daughter sat down on a small rock facing west and became lost in thoughts that only she knows. The glow of the setting sun reflecting off of her youthful face illuminated a contented smile that gave this parent cause to be optimistic.


I wonder if the Yellow Warbler had built its nest taller to cover up Brown-headed Cowbird eggs.

Very nice to see the photo of the dreamy young woman lost in thought on the coyote butte. And no wires emenating from her ears. Here’s hope.


It was a relaxing trip that filled me with peace and contentment. I was happy to be a part of your family’s “adventure”. Looking forward to next time!

Cute:>) I had a flock of owls living in my tree all last wetnir. Long eared owls. There must have been 10 of them. It was amazing finding all the squirrel and pigeon bones in their droppings…. Little skulls, claws, etc… They eat the whole critter.

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